Hands Across the Water: Brazil's large Syrian community absorbs refugees

News Stories, 6 August 2013

© UNHCR/K.Fusaro
Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers gather informally on a Sao Paulo street. Brazil has recognized around 200 Syrians as refugees since the Syrian crisis erupted in March 2011.

SAO PAULO, Brazil, Aug 6 (UNHCR) When Syrian businessman Nidal Hassan flew to Sao Paulo a year ago it was not his first visit to Brazil, but this time he was looking for shelter and a new start rather than business opportunities.

"We didn't have a choice because our situation in Syria became unsustainable," said the 53-year-old from the city of Homs, which has been devastated by heavy fighting between government and rebels forces since the Syria crisis erupted in March 2011.

He said that before they left Homs, people had begun searching for food under the rubble of destroyed buildings and, "We ran out of gas and drinking water." Nidal said he had decided to leave because they were risking their lives by staying, but his older daughter stayed behind with her husband and children.

But instead of seeking shelter in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan or Egypt, which together have taken in 1.89 million Syrians, Nidal decided to head across the Atlantic to Brazil, which has a big Syrian community. He was not the only one; Brazil has granted asylum to just over 200 Syrian refugees in the past two-and-a-half years and a further 50 claims are waiting to be processed. In April, the number of asylum-seekers recognized was up 50 per cent on the month before.

The Brazilian government has approved 100 per cent of the asylum claims presented so far by Syrian nationals, but many more people may have flown to the country and not bothered to seek asylum.

"We assume that the number of Syrians living in Brazil because of the conflict is much bigger than the figure revealed by the official statistics," said Andrés Ramirez, UNHCR's representative in Brazil. He said that this was because many of the new arrivals were staying with family or friends among the estimated 3 million-strong Syrian community, which is playing a key support role.

Syrian asylum-seekers had started arriving in Brazil from the very beginning of the conflict and officials said this was this was due to the strong historical links between the two countries and the big Syrian community.

Most of the asylum-seekers have presented their claims in Sao Paulo, which hosts the largest Syrian community, but they have also approached the authorities in other cities and states where Syrians are settled, including the Federal District, Southern Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.

But the government and several humanitarian organizations, such as UNHCR implementing partner Caritas Sao Paulo as well as the Syrian Orthodox Church, provide needy refugees and asylum seekers with aid, including psycho-social assistance, emergence financial grants and Portuguese-language classes to ease their integration.

The government provides them with the documentation needed to access public services, such as education and health, and to find employment, rent a place to stay and open a bank account. The most vulnerable cases receive extra support.

"With the Portuguese language classes, I am trying to minimize my dependence on other people and improve my chances of finding a job," said Ali Humsi, who arrived in Brazil from Syria with his family more than a year ago.

His experience reflects the integration challenges that most of the Syrians face in Brazil due to cultural differences, including those who are highly trained. Kamal Abogavar was an IT expert back in Syria, but he now works as a sales assistant in a central Sao Paulo clothes store owned by a fellow Syrian.

Within the Syrian community, businessman Amer Masarani coordinates a support group in Sao Paulo that began as a Facebook page. He has been living in Brazil for the last 15 years and through his local network, Masarani, raises money to pay the rent for people arriving from Syria. He has also helped some refugees get jobs with Syrian-owned companies in Sao Paulo.

In another neighbourhood, Father Gabriel Dahho mobilizes the members of the Syrian Orthodox Church to collect cloths and money for the refugees. He also offers Portuguese classes and jobs. Father Gabriel has relatives exiled in Germany and works in close coordination with Caritas to help refugees, with funding from UNHCR and the Brazilian government.

"UNHCR considers that the vast majority of Syrian nationals leaving their country under the current circumstances are in need of international protection," the refugee agency's Ramirez stressed. "We are glad to see Brazil keeping its borders open and processing asylum claims in a timely manner.

According to official figures, Brazil hosts around 4,300 recognized refugees from more than 70 different nationalities. The main groups are from Angola, Colombia and Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country has recently adopted a cessation of refugee status clause for Angolans and Liberians, and as soon as those individuals receive a permanent visa, Syrians will represent the third biggest group of recognized refugees living in Brazil.

By Karin Fusaro and Luiz Fernando Godinho in Sao Paulo, Brazil

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Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

Irina was born in 1998 in Switzerland, daughter of a Brazilian mother and her Swiss boyfriend. Soon afterwards, her mother Denise went to the Brazilian Consulate in Geneva to get a passport for Irina. She was shocked when consular officials told her that under a 1994 amendment to the constitution, children born overseas to Brazilians could not automatically gain citizenship. To make matters worse,the new-born child could not get the nationality of her father at birth either. Irina was issued with temporary travel documents and her mother was told she would need to sort out the problem in Brazil.

In the end, it took Denise two years to get her daughter a Brazilian birth certificate, and even then it was not regarded as proof of nationality by the authorities. Denise turned for help to a group called Brasileirinhos Apátridas (Stateless Young Brazilians), which was lobbying for a constitutional amendment to guarantee nationality for children born overseas with at least one Brazilian parent.

In 2007, Brazil's National Congress approved a constitutional amendment that dropped the requirement of residence in Brazil for receiving citizenship. In addition to benefitting Irina, the law helped an estimated 200,000 children, who would have otherwise been left stateless and without many of thebasic rights that citizens enjoy. Today, children born abroad to Brazilian parents receive Brazilian nationality provided that they are registered with the Brazilian authorities, or they take up residence in Brazil and opt for Brazilian nationality.

"As a mother it was impossible to accept that my daughter wasn't considered Brazilian like me and her older brother, who was also born in Switzerland before the 1994 constitutional change," said Denise. "For me, the fact that my daughter would depend on a tourist visa to live in Brazil was an aberration."

Irina shares her mother's discomfort. "It's quite annoying when you feel you belong to a country and your parents only speak to you in that country's language, but you can't be recognized as a citizen of that country. It feels like they are stealing your childhood," the 12-year-old said.

Statelessness among Brazilian Expats

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

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